I’ve written a little about my experiences with this game as I approached the end of the main story here. I have now completed my first playthrough, having experienced pretty much every bit of side content there is to discover (to my knowledge) and I wanted to share some further thoughts of a more spoilery kind.
It needs mentioning that this game is, ultimately, far from what we were lead to believe it would be. That’s not to say I’m disappointed by the game we were given – on its own merits, Cyberpunk 2077 delivers an outstanding world visually, with compelling characters and a well told and interesting story. What it isn’t is a living, breathing world you can really live in, in a true RPG manner. There are shops, but given the amount of loot you accrue, they’re all essentially useless outside of buying crafting recipes. The mega-buildings are only really mega-buildings from the outside. Inside, an elevator allows travel to the one or two floors you are permitted to visit – in principle, these should be towns in themselves. The first that you visit, where your apartment is, has a little bit of side content associated as well as a couple of vendors, but that’s it. Given their prominence in the marketing, it was reasonable to expect these structures to contain large chunks of what Night City had to explore. My expectations before release envisaged a mission essentially like the plot of the more recent Dredd movie – a mega-building occupied by a gang, and the player working their way through the structure as part of a large, multi-part quest. There is a quest where you infiltrate an entertainment venue in a mega-building, which can be accessed by climbing over a few gantries from the mega-building interior but once inside, it’s just a regular building. Had this mission taken place in a building on ground level, it would have felt no different. Not taking advantage of the idea of mega-buildings seems to me to be this game’s biggest missed opportunity.
“Missed opportunity” are probably the two words which most accurately summarise Cyberpunk 2077 overall. It’s a shame, because Night City is a glorious accomplishment of world design, and it’s wonderful that there is so much explorable land outside of the city to give you that sense of scale looking inwards from the outside. I love that the areas outside the city are dominated by an enormous landfill and similarly epic in scale arrays of turbines, solar panels, and greenhouses. It really makes the world believable in terms of all the infrastructure required to light, heat, and feed the city. The world is magnificent, but let down by just how non-interactive the whole thing is. Nearly all the buildings are inaccessible, vendors have no personality – a handful of tiny little side quests not-withstanding – so really there’s little reason to explore the nooks and crannies beyond soaking up the visual design. And don’t get me wrong, there is much pleasure to be had exploring this – the artists and level designers have done an absolutely wonderful job – but nothing of note has been done to compliment this work which is a tremendous waste, ultimately.
But, like I said, I’m not disappointed by what we’ve got. Complaints about performance and bugs aside, the biggest issues are really just about what we expected in terms of the hype and marketing surrounding the game. And in this regard, it’s difficult to sympathise with CD Projekt Red’s top-brass given that they controlled this narrative. These expectations did not arise in a vacuum – just gamers getting over-excited by possibilities never promised – they were directly fuelled by official marketing. We expected a role-playing game where we defined our character and a city full of random encounters and events. I remember footage showing how fights would break out on the streets, how dangerous Night City is. In reality, Cyberpunk 2077 is a fairly rigidly told story where Johnny Silverhand is the protagonist, not V, and the danger of Night City is contained within a fixed number of ‘crime reported’ events which you can hoover up rendering huge swathes of the map permanently safe. I expected on-foot navigation of Night City to result in frequently running into muggings, robberies, violence of all kinds. In the opening of the game you witness the militarised police descend on some hapless criminals and resolve the problem with the sort of over-enthusiastic brutality you’d expect to see from a dystopian police-force. But it’s a scripted scene for narrative purposes – you will never see this kind of event again while exploring.
This is a blunder of narrative, in my opinion. On the one hand, an NCPD officer offering out the ability to ‘resolve’ a crime incident to any randomly-passing merc with carte-blanche to use lethal force makes an interesting statement about the police’s inability to handle the amount of crime in the city. On the other hand you have this Judge Dredd style militarised and corporatised overly brutal response to crime. Well, which is it? On the one hand, you have this militarised police force with flying vehicles ready to descend at a moment’s notice complete with giant ED 209 style mechs, on the other a police force which just gives up if you murder a bunch of people and then run away for a bit. It feels as though lofty plans to really cement the idea the game is shooting for – a police force using excessive power to attempt to hold back a tide of rising crime and violence – was watered down to just basically telling us that’s what’s happening, and hoping the few random map events are enough to sell it. Car-jacking gets talked about on the radio a lot, but in the game if you want to see that you have to do it yourself. Of course, implementing NPC crowd behaviour of this complexity is a challenge beyond anything we’ve seen in videogames before, so it would be unrealistic to expect anything to this level but more could have been achieved by triggering scripted events to get set something which more strongly alludes to that stuff in my opinion.
The city, a hub of sin and debauchery has a single street with a useable brothel in it – there are fewer prostitutes than Novigrad and they have less personality. Brain Dances make up a surprisingly small element of the game and although the snuff film possibilities of that tech are briefly explored in a quest, you never really get to experience that for yourself. The internet itself, while there are story reasons as to why it so small and contained, is barely scratched upon as a world element. A huge amount of the lore is incredibly interesting – particularly as someone who had no prior knowledge of the tabletop Cyberpunk games – and this game leads me to believe it’s probably incredibly good stuff with some really great ideas in it. But in Cyberpunk 2077, all those ideas remain as just lore and, again, the opportunity to realise that stuff as a next-gen interactive videogame experience is utterly missed in large part. For instance, the game references Cyberpsychosis multiple times (and subduing Cyberpsychos makes up a large chunk of the side activities) and this immediately evoked memories of how that other tabletop-turned-videogame Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines had a humanity stat front-and-centre. Low humanity in VtM:B lead to a beast-like frenzy so it’s easy to see how this could have played a role in Cyberpunk 2077 and in how omitting this sort of stuff (along with whatever else is in the Cyberpunk rulebook) shows how the focus was squarely on the Johnny Silverhand narrative and not on the RPG roots of the license.
There are multiple gangs, and these gangs are incredibly distinct in both visual design and ethos. And I’m sure those gangs are tremendously interesting in the tabletop games. In the videogame, outside of some set missions, you do not get to explore them in any depth. You can identify with the ethos of The Voodoo Boys as much as you like, but it has no bearing what-so-ever on the game or your character. I think back to Fallout New Vegas and how successfully Obsidian managed to handle multiple factions, each with associated quests which often directly contradicted a similar quest from an opposing faction. The “world” in Fallout New Vegas was not just the level design, it was the people in the world and how they relate to it. And yeah, it was also a buggy mess on release and they had the advantage (if you want to call it that) of building their game on top of Fallout 3’s pre-existing tools and tech. But they still accomplished all of this in just 18 months – it’s a remarkable accomplishment and, even though the graphics (even for the time) were far from being particularly amazing it’s a testament to how well crafted that world was, and just how good the team at Obsidian were at writing characters and quests in a way which built a cohesive and believable world, that they were able to manage this feat and that, to this day, the game remains the pinnacle of open world RPG design. After The Witcher 3, it felt like CD Projekt Red were also up to the task but it seems that, for whatever reason – money, time, priority – and in spite of the outstanding efforts put in from the artists and the rendering coders – they still have a lot of room to grow.
I don’t want this to all sound negative, though – as I said, the game as given is one which I have very much enjoyed. But it’s impossible not to feel a twinge of disappointment. Despite the characters in Cyberpunk 2077 being excellent – all of them distinct and interesting – and despite the main story being fascinating and some side missions having tremendously interesting ideas in them (particularly the one involving Jefferson Peralez and his wife, Elizabeth) none of it reaches even close to the storytelling perfection of The Witcher 3’s Bloody Baron quest, or Hearts of Stone. But this is a new game, a new genre, and after fixing the bugs and delivering us a few story DLCs I would love CD Projekt Red to take what they learned from this and build on it. Cyberpunk 2077 leaves me wanting more and, ultimately, that’s a good thing.